The War on Terror and the normal behavior of government agencies

As a follow-up to a previous post on the subject, I have a few more words about terrorism. Before, I discussed a few of the features that make terrorism the perfect motivation for war from the viewpoint of the state. I alluded to one but did not say enough about it. That feature is how it’s self-sustaining.

It was pointed out several years ago by many people on many sides that every innocent Afghan or Iraq killed by American might would only spur ten more into anti-American action. The same applies to drone strikes in Yemen or Pakistan today. The stupidity of the Department of Defense and the CIA exasperated all the anti-war people*—to think that they would do something so obviously bound to create more enemies!

Anyone familiar with public choice should not be surprised. Politicians and bureaucracies always try to perpetuate and extend their influence and power. Why would the CIA care that it is creating more enemies? Terrorism is the perfect justification for the boundless expansion of the intelligence-military-industrial complex’s budgets and mandates, so why should they try to put themselves out of a job?

Remember that the US government financed the training of the mujahideen during the Soviet war in Afghanistan and provided their weapons. Only the most hopelessly naive could doubt that the CIA must have been on the ground as well. Years later, out of that movement would arise Osama bin Laden, leader of al-Qaeda and the most wanted man in the world. The new movement of which he was a large part would be the next great enemy.

In retrospect, it might seem short-sighted for the US IMI complex to have supported the mujahideen—and it is, from a regular person’s point of view. But from their point of view, it’s like a gift that keeps on giving.

I stop short of saying they intend for this to happen. All government agencies have a tendency to focus on the very near term, and the rise of a new world-class enemy is many years in the making. But surely there are honest people inside the IMI complex who saw what the rest of the world saw, that they were only making more enemies? We have every reason to believe this idea was raised and considered. We know that if so, the leadership decided it wasn’t a good enough objection to stop any of the various US government war measures. Would that have been because they didn’t think it would have a big impact, or because that big impact will lead to many delightful tasks for the IMI complex in the future?

I want to emphasize than even though I disagree with most of what they do, all of those agencies contain honest people who truly believe in keeping Americans and possibly even foreigners safe. The problem with government agencies like these is that it doesn’t really matter what the motivations of the individual workers are; all of their efforts are directed, whether they like it or not, towards the ends that the leadership chooses. And we already know the worst rise to the top in government.

At the end of the day I can’t say firmly that blowback is a feature, not a bug. But there are reasons worth considering that it might be so.


* Back before most of them revealed themselves to oppose only Republican-led wars.

On Property

It’s long been one of my main guiding ideas that a great deal of intellectual confusion results from the misuse of language. “Property” is a term so poorly defined that it’s worth talking about for a moment.

Example 1: One of the constant themes in Robert Kee’s The Green Flag: A History of Irish Nationalism is how various reform-minded leaders were unable to find a solution to the widespread poverty in Ireland that respected “the rights of property”. This meant mainly the rights of the landed class, whose titles dated back to the Anglo-Norman conquest. On any theory of just land ownership this fails, as this was land taken by conquest and parceled out by royal favor. The serfs who worked the land lived in desperate poverty, as had many generations before them, and this poverty was a cause of social instability for hundreds of years. The difference between the classes was more obvious in the beginning when the landowners were Anglo-Normans and the peasants Irish, but after the conquest the landowners were absorbed into Irish culture. It became a distinction only of class.

By conflating Anglo-Norman titles acquired by force with legitimate property, the Irish and British elites of later centuries were unable to conceive of a solution that respected property titles and allowed for the alleviation of property. The problem was not that private property ownership per se leads to poverty; the problem was that, according to a libertarian theory of property, the wrong people had title to the land. Breaking up the estates into smaller plots, each owned by the peasants who worked them, would have greatly reduced poverty very quickly, but this would have required a better understanding of legitimate property rights and of course been in conflict with the interests of the powerful.

This is just one real-world example. Almost anywhere in the third world today you could find others.

Example 2: The use of the phrase “intellectual property” is another conflation. On one hand is property, physical stuff that can be mixed with labor, and on the other hand there are ideas and extensions of ideas, i.e. sounds, pictures, words. I favor the term “intellectual monopoly” myself, as this makes it more clear that the government is behind what is really an artificial right.

Ideas are non-rival: my “consumption” of an idea does not prevent your simultaneous “consumption” of the same good. By contrast, you and I could not both enjoy the same Cuban sandwich at the same time. Rivalry is one of the reasons why humans devised rules and theories concerning physical property, but this characteristic of physical property is entirely absent from books, music, etc. The now-classic example is that if I borrow a cd of yours and copy it, I return the cd to you good as new, and now you and I can both enjoy the music.

Supporters of intellectual property have several lines of reasoning on their side. One is that it is a reward for creating things, which the creators deserve. I think this fails from the non-rivalry argument, and moreover the concept of “owning an idea” is absurd. Nobody owns language, for instance, but a person or corporation can own certain combinations of words.

Second, this reward is an incentive to further creation without which creative output would slow. This is rarely ever addressed as an empirical question, though it should be. It’s not at all clear that on net intellectual property rights stimulate creativity, and I suspect it’s actually the opposite. A lot of intellectual property is held defensively, where the holder does nothing with it but prevents competitors from using it as well. Stephan Kinsella has a lot more on this point (and on opposition to intellectual property generally).

Third, the cynical reasoning is that current owners of said property have a lot at stake and fight tooth and nail not to lose it. Disney pushes for the extension of copyrights every time Steamboat Willie approaches public domain, and they always get it. People have a tendency to prefer the status quo over change, and so a lot of support for the current IP regime is not really ideological at all.

Example 3: There are differences when considering private property, public property, and common property. Your house is private property. City sidewalks are public property. Common property is not encountered so much anymore, but still includes things like air. Before the current property regime took shape, there were trails, for instance, that were considered common property. The trail was made by many people, and no one person could claim to own it, but at the same time the government was not considered its owner either. If a person were to erect a toll booth in the middle, he’d be laughed out of town by the other users of the trail. If the government were to try the same, it too would be laughed out of town.

Many, possibly most major thoroughfares in the eastern part of the United States started out this way. Though now considered government property, it was not always the case. These paths/trails/roads were products of human action by many actors, and the part X “made” could not be separated from the part Y “made”. This was also a common form of property among American Indians before the conquest. Land could be held in common by a tribe, without anybody in particular necessarily owning a particular part of it, and other tribes knew and mostly respected this.

It may be the case that common property is rarely applicable in most instances in the modern day, but if it is in some non-zero proportion we’d do well to keep it in mind.


A lot of confusion about property rights stems from linguistic abuse. I don’t mean to suggest that we can resolve these issues quickly or simply, just that we should keep these different concepts in mind when we refer to “property”.

Cantillon effects of American metals in Spain

I am not sure why Cantillon effects are not the textbook answer used to describe Spain’s emergence as a European power after contact with the New World. Simply put, as new currency goes into circulation it leads to inflation (when old currency is not removed from the market), but it does not go into an economic region uniformly. It enters via specific places and groups, and these groups then have relatively greater spending power than everyone else. They bid up prices until eventually this money circulates around and the new price level obtains throughout the market. The market participants return to their original relative levels of purchasing power.

Jack Weatherford writes in his book Indian Givers that three fifths of American bullion entering Spain went right back out as debt payments. Spain had not been a dominant country prior to contact with the Western Hemisphere, nor was it to continue in its strong position after the new money had been in circulation long enough to spread around and other powers became heavily invested in the Americas. In other words, this relative prosperity Spain briefly enjoyed did not seem to be based on any better social fundamentals than its peers had; neither the pre-contact equilibrium nor the eventual post-contact equilibrium had Spain on top of the pile.

Terrorism: the Perfect Enemy

I’ve been kicking an idea around lately, and since Lucy Steigerwald at Reason beat me to it, I thought I’d finally throw it out there.

The fall of the USSR was devastating for the US intelligence-military-industrial complex. No longer was there a mortal enemy with fanatically devoted 10-foot-tall bulletproof soldiers to justify their existence. Iraq was a temporary solution—the real long-term enemy of the future had to be found. The misadventures in the former Yugoslavia were barely a blip on the radar.

9/11 gave them everything they needed. To the intelligence-military-industrial mind, terrorists are the perfect enemy. They have power bases in certain countries—so the regular military still needs more money all the time—but they also operate in small cells under every rock on the planet, so the intelligence community also needs more money and more power all the time.

It wasn’t just the national-level organizations. I’m sure that every police officer at every level of law enforcement in the United States has been told to keep an eye out for terrorists. DHS grants flowed like wine before the ink was even dry on the Homeland Security act. Local police use these grants to outfit SWAT teams and buy armored cars which almost never see action against terrorists. Their primary function is as tools in the second Prohibition.

In the name of fighting this faceless, formless enemy, the FBI and CIA have been carrying out secret operations, the scope of which is top secret, and which the few details that have emerged have demonstrated to be consistently illegal. No matter, combating terrorism is as adaptable a mandate as can be found. The courts routinely defer to them even when their conduct would shock and appall a judge before 9/11.

In the name of fighting this faceless, formless enemy, the Department of Defense has taken hundreds of thousands of well-intentioned young Americans and used them to extend the US sphere of influence by all manner of brutal means. The nominally private parts of the intelligence-military-industrial complex don’t just happen to have money raining on them from the sky; that’s not a bug, that’s a feature. The fact that the presence of the US armed forces creates resentment is not a problem at all—I’m not saying they’re banking on it, but the world would look just about the same if they were.

Because “we’re at war” with an enemy that can never really be identified, much less defeated, the Executive Branch has usurped power undreamed of by the cruelest and most maniacal Roman emperors. The courts consistently find that because “we’re at war” the Executive Branch should have only the lightest, most flexible, most nominal constraints on its actions.

As if to prove me right, a recent news story had “defense analysts” proclaiming that despite the fact that Al-Qaeda is now almost defunct, they’re more dangerous than ever. This was just in time for Obama to sign a new agreement with Afghanistan’s Hamid Karzai on the long-term future of Afghanistan, slightly winding down the full-frontal military side of the conflict but in no way affecting FBI/CIA plots, including domestic agents provocateurs and foreign drone strikes that target people who merely appear suspicious to drone operators.

This is an enemy the US government and its friends will be obsessed with for as long as possible—probably at least for the rest of my natural life.